Establishing Close Bonds: Trails Therapist Discusses Work With Teens Struggling with Attachment Issues

Adoption is one of the most emotional, joyful experiences some parents will ever experience. However, if your adopted child is struggling with attachment issues related to their childhood experiences, it can feel very difficult to establish the close parent-child bond you’ve been yearning for young people struggling with behavioral and emotional challenges related to adoption and attachment need to be supported through the establishment of healthy communication between themselves and their adoptive parents. Over the years, I have worked with many young people with attachment issues. Often, it’s not an easy process to work through these behaviors. It’s important for parents to be persistent in their efforts to form connections with their adopted child.
In my years of working with adoptive parents and the children, I have used several specific assignments which help to build a healthy dialogue between students and parents.

Techniques for helping students with attachment issues

  1. Empty Chair technique: This technique is influenced by Gestalt therapy. In the empty chair activity, students pretend that their adoptive or biological parents are seated in front of them. They engage in a dialogue with them revolving around their emotions or questions they may have. For adopted students, in particular, I encourage them to pretend that their biological parent is in front of them. They ask questions they’ve wanted their biological parents to answer and express their emotions around their adoption. If they have a picture of their biological parent, we often place that in the empty chair for the student to address. attachment issues
  2. Discussing their fantasies around adoption: Many adopted students have developed a fantasy around what their biological parents are like. They always have a story in their head about who their bio-parents were. They are curious about certain traits they acquired from their bio-parents or about the nature vs. nurture discussion.
  3. Writing the adoption story: I ask parents to write the entire story of their child’s adoption for the student to read. This story will cover all of the work and preparation that went into the adoption process . This includes details like: why the parents wanted to adopt the child, the application process, when the child was adopted (newborn or late adoption), and whether it was an open or closed adoption. This story also details the emotions and excitement that comes with becoming the parent of an adopted child.
  4. Psychodrama: I think psychodrama is a great way of helping students open up about past wounds around their adoption, such as feelings of low self worth or low self value. Someone else in the therapeutic group acts as their mom or dad while the student talks to them about their feelings.

If none of these techniques work well for the student, Trails Carolina is very flexible in designing programming that fits each individual family’s needs.
For example, I recently worked with a student struggling with reactive attachment disorder who was not responding to any of the techniques mentioned above. He refused to open up to a relationship with his adoptive parents. His parents are coming to campus for an intensive session with their family therapist at Trails in the middle of the student’s therapeutic process in order to gain more information about their relationship.
At Trails, therapeutic staff are able to be creative in the ways we help students and families heal wounds and establish healthy connections.

Working with families

Here are few things I tell families who have children struggling with attachment issues:

  • Don’t take it personally: It’s important for parents to remember that they did not cause their child’s attachment issues.
  • Be patient: It’s going to take time, but change is possible.
  • Be a safe outlet for your child: It’s important to tell your child how much you love them and that you will never abandon them. They need to hear that from you.
  • Do activities you enjoy together: Taking part in activities your child enjoys and participating in that activity together can be a great bonding experience. For example, if your child loves to cook, attend a cooking class together. Children with attachment issues don’t normally like to be touched and so participating in these activities can provide the warm, fuzzy feelings brought about by establishing closeness.

Gift of Adoption

I like to reiterate to students who were adopted how much of a gift they are to their adoptive parents. Their adoptive parents specifically chose them over everyone else. Biological children are not chosen – they just come out the way they are. Adopted children, on the other hand, are handpicked.
I also talk about the gift that their biological parents gave their adopted parents and them by putting their child up for adoption. I remind them that their biological mother carried them to term so that they could have a better life and it must have been extremely hard giving them up.
Over the years I have worked with both males and females struggling with attachment issues. I would say that girls are more likely to want to know more about their biological parents from an early age.
Boys on the other hand are more likely to say that they have no issues with being adopted and don’t care about learning more information. Later in life they may be interested to see what their genetic information is like, especially before becoming fathers themselves. Even if they say that they have no issues with their adoption, there might actually be a deep wound.

Mantra of Students with Attachment Issues

Often, there is a mantra repeated by students who have been adopted. This mantra of, “Are you going to give up on me now? Are you going to leave me now?”. Young people struggling with attachment issues are often separated from their biological parents at a young age and given very little affection or no affection at all. They are in constant fear of abandonment and, therefore, struggle to form close bonds with those around them. Because of this, they constantly test the close relationships in their lives. They act out against their parents and refuse to return the affections showered over them.
Identifying that mantra rooted deep within their psyche during therapy can sometimes help them better understand those thoughts and begin the shift away from those behaviors. By actively realizing that they are trying to push away the people who love them the most, they can come up with strategies to change those feelings.

Trails Carolina can help

Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy program for young people ages 10-17, helps teens struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges such as attachment, depression, trauma, and low self esteem.
For more information about Trails Carolina, please call 800-975-7303 or visit

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Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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